Contemporary Sociological Theory
Structuralism, Poststructuralism, and the Emergence of Postmodern Social Theory
The concept of modern social theory presents the possibility of a postmodern social theory.
Indeed, postmodernism has had wide-ranging effects on a number of disciplines, including
sociology. Because of the multidisciplinary nature of postmodernism, it is necessary to think of
postmodern social theory rather than postmodern sociological theory, with the basic distinction
resting on the various sources of input in social theory.
Structuralism emerged from a reaction against the humanism of
Jean-Paul Sartre's (1905-1980)
existentialism. Sartre assailed the idea of structures that overly determine the behavior of
individuals, of having actors without agency. Structuralism emerged in the 1960s, and was based
on the work of
Ferdinand de Saussure(1857-1913)
. Saussure's work was oriented to
understanding the structures underlying languages. Thus, structuralism is associated with the
linguistic turn. Saussure focused on the relationship between the formal, grammatical system of
) and the everyday usage of language (
was of little interest to
linguists, who should be concerned with understanding the determinant laws that govern
is conceptualized as a system of signs whereby each sign may be understood by its
relationships to other signs within the system. This system of signs is a structure, a structure that
affects society by shaping relationships of signs within the system and our understanding of the
world. Saussure focused on the creation of difference, particularly through binary oppositions
(e.g., hot/cold) , which have meaning only in relation to one another. The idea of semiotics
extended the analysis of sign systems to various dimensions of the social world.
Structuralism also influenced anthropology and Marxism. In the former case, the work of
Claude Levi-Strauss (1908-)
exhibits this influence. Levi-Strauss attempted to extend
structuralism to anthropology, focusing on communication. He reinterpreted social phenomena
for their effects on communication. Structural Marxism took from structuralism an interest in the
historical origins of structures, but continued to focus on social and economic structures.
Poststructuralism loosened the moorings underlying systems of signs. Rather than seeing stable
relationships of signs, they saw chaotic and highly variable context-dependent systems. In their
view, such structures could not have the coercive power over individuals that the structuralists
attributed to them.
, perhaps the originator of poststructuralism, has
argued against the notion of logocentrism. By
Derrida meant the coercive, limiting
effects of the search for universal systems of thought that would reveal "truth." Instead, Derrida
attempts to deconstruct, or uncover, hidden differences that underlie logocentrism. At the heart